Monday, December 31, 2007

The Escape

(A sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas based on Hebrews 2:10-18 and Matthew 2:13-23)

What we have here is an escape story. The story tells of the escape of Joseph and Mary to Egypt; they took their infant son Jesus with them. They undertook the journey because an angel of the Lord had told Joseph in a dream that Herod the Great was going to try to kill Jesus. Although Joseph necessarily takes the lead, Jesus is the real center of the story. He is the true hero of the narrative that is unfolding.

It is important that the hero escape so that he can live his heroic life and perform his heroic actions. We are familiar with how this works.

In George Lucas’ epic Star Wars saga, in the midst of a bitter inter-galactic conflict that is also played out in the lives of individual protagonists, twins are born to Princess Amidala, who dies in childbirth. Their father is the powerful Jedi Anakin Skywalker who is in the process of becoming the Dark Lord Darth Vader and from whom the twins’ existence must be kept a secret so that he will not have the opportunity to corrupt them. So, the twins are separated and placed with families distant from one another in every way imaginable. It is very important to the story that Luke and Leia be protected because they are destined to grow up and be leaders in the fight for freedom from tyranny.

Some of us are more familiar with the Bible than we are with Star Wars, I imagine, so let me offer you a biblical example of another escape story. Whereas the infant Jesus was taken to Egypt for his protection, this hero was born in Egypt during a time when his people were being persecuted there. The family of Jacob had been in captivity in Egypt for 400 years. Explosive growth in the Hebrew population had caused the Pharaoh to issue an order that all newborn males were to be thrown into the Nile River. When Moses was born, his mother hid him in a basket which she placed in the Nile. There he was found by an Egyptian princess who raised him with his own mother serving as nurse to him. Moses, who escaped death at the hands of a threatened power, grew up to become the great liberator of the Hebrews.

Jesus also escaped death at the hands of a threatened power. Jesus also grew up to become the liberator of his people. Thus, the escape was necessary.

In each of these stories, though, there was collateral damage of the worst kind. It was of the worst kind because in each case children were killed. In the Star Wars story, it was young Jedi students. In the Exodus story, it was the male children of the Hebrews. In the story of Jesus, it was the children of Bethlehem. It is a troubling fact that children do suffer. It is even more troubling that children suffer because of the fears and ambitions of people in power; they often suffer because of the sins of grown people.

Jesus came into a world where tyrannical despots worked their will. He came into a world where people of all ages suffered. He, like Moses but in a way even greater than that of Moses, came to do something about it all, but it is the nature of things that the solution can bring with it more pain and suffering. And in the wonderful and terrible stories of the Exodus and the flight of the holy family to Egypt, we find children suffering.

Jesus came to share in the suffering of God’s children. But he also came to overcome the suffering of God’s children. That is part of the wonder of it all.

Try to imagine what it must have been like for Joseph and his family. They had to make the long and treacherous trek to Egypt and find a colony of Jews among whom they could live. Once there, they had to wonder what was happening back home in Judea. No doubt Mary continued to ponder these things in her heart and I imagine that Joseph did his fair share of pondering, too. When would they be able to go home? Would they be able to go home? And so it came to pass that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, started out his life poor and homeless and then spent some of his earliest days as a refugee.

So Jesus escaped the murderous intentions of Herod the Great but he did not escape the kinds of suffering and struggling that can and do come to us humans. As he grew into manhood and into the special calling that his Father had placed upon his life, Jesus did not try to escape the trials and testing and suffering that came with being the Son of God; to the contrary, he embraced such trials and testing and suffering and in embracing them defeated them. As the author of Hebrews puts it, it is because Jesus went through testing and suffering that he can help us when we are tested and when we suffer (2:18).

How remarkable it is that the Son of God came to Earth and went through the kind of tests and suffering that we encounter! This is a God who cares, who cares enough to walk beside us in all that we experience but who even cares enough to walk through it before us and ahead of us! In so doing he proclaimed the way of the Father (2:12) and showed us how to trust in God no matter what we are experiencing (2:13).

Yes, the infant Jesus escaped the murderous intentions of Herod. But in the end, he did not escape the murderous intentions of sinful authorities and other sinful people who wanted to take his life. He escaped at the beginning of his life; could he have escaped again? Yes. Indeed, the record indicates that he wanted to escape; recall his prayer in the Garden: “Father, if it be thy will, let this cup pass from me.” Surely the temptation to choose a way other than the hard way of the Father was one of the hardest tests that Jesus faced. As F. F. Bruce put it,

Time and again the temptation came to Him from many directions to choose some less costly way of fulfilling that calling than the way of suffering and death, but He resisted it to the end and set His face steadfastly to accomplish the purpose for which He had come into the world [F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), p. 53].

He chose to stay and to die because only in that way could he overcome death and thereby take away the one thing from the devil that the old enemy has to hold over us all. He embraced death so as to give us life. He embraced death so as to defeat all the realities that enslave us and that take the life from us.

Praise be to God for Jesus Christ who was tested, who suffered, and who died to open up the way of salvation for us and who also opened up the way to real life here and now for us.

For you see, in Jesus we escape the fear of death and the judgment of death. We do not escape the living of life and the suffering that comes with it, but that suffering and testing is transformed into an opportunity to bear witness to who Christ is in our lives. And we do not escape the privilege and responsibility of walking among and ministering to those who are suffering and dying all around us. As Lawrence Farris said, “In rapid and dramatic contrast to ‘the glory all around’ of Christmas, he takes his place where so many of his children live. And there should the church, his body, always be” [Lawrence W. Farris, Third Readings: The Gospels in The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, ed. Roger E. Van Harn, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), p. 11]. We who have received Christ have escaped the clutches of sin and death. But we dare not escape our ministry to all those hurting people around us. Jesus overcame sin and death by holding them fast to himself. We help to overcome the forces that threaten to overwhelm our neighbors when we clutch our neighbors to our chests.

The poet John Guzlowski has written somewhat of what I am trying to say in his poem “What My Father Believed.” In that poem Guzlowski writes of the faith of his father, who spent time in a slave labor camp in Nazi Germany. In one part of the poem he writes,

My father believed we are here to lift logs
that can't be lifted, to hammer steel nails
so bent they crack when we hit them.
In the slave labor camps in Germany,
He'd seen men try the impossible and fail.

He believed life is hard, and we should
help each other. If you see someone
on a cross, his weight pulling him down
and breaking his muscles, you should try
to lift him, even if only for a minute,
even though you know lifting won't save him
[John Guzlowski, “What My Father Believed,” from Lightning And Ashes. © Steel Toe Books, 2007. The entire poem can be read at The Writer's Almanac.]

We children of God don’t escape suffering. Those children in Bethlehem didn’t; we children of God don’t. Ultimately, though, suffering and death have been defeated by Jesus, who escaped death at the beginning but who embraced it at the end. Our joy is to live that truth and to tell all those around us of it. And it’s true—we can’t save anybody. But we can show them and tell them about the one who suffered and died to overcome what is tearing them apart and weighing them down.

We have escaped.

Therefore, you see, we dare not run away.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

My BCS Predictions


There are too many college football bowl games. If they are going to have this many bowl games, then they ought to go ahead and have enough for every Division I Bowl Subdivision (abbreviated Division I FBS) school to play in a bowl game.

I haven’t watched too many minutes of too many games so far. Happily, though, we are almost through the preliminary bowl games (Emerald, Alamo, Texas, New Orleans, for example) and about to get to the ones that matter.

I confess that I am one of those people who spend the first day of the New Year watching way too much football. It’s a lot of fun.

Another complaint I have is that the bowl season now extends past January 1. I fondly remember having a pretty good idea when I went to bed late on January 1 who the national champion was going to be. This year, we have to wait until January 7.

All of that having been said, I want to offer two scores for each Bowl Championship Series game. In each case, the first score will be the score that I want to see and the second will be the score that I think will in fact result.

Rose Bowl

My hoped-for score: Illinois 35, USC 34
My predicted score: USC 41, Illinois 21

Sugar Bowl

My hoped-for score: Georgia 41, Hawaii 0
My predicted score: Georgia 48, Hawaii 24

Fiesta Bowl

My hoped-for score: West Virginia 45, Oklahoma 28
My predicted score: Oklahoma 35, West Virginia 28

Orange Bowl

My hoped-for score: Kansas 28, Virginia Tech 24
My predicted score: Virginia Tech 34, Kansas 14

BCS Championship

My hoped-for score: LSU 50, Ohio State 3
My predicted score: LSU 45, Ohio State 10

I also hope and predict that the SEC will go 9-0 in bowl games this year.

We’ll see!

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

White--or Black--or Blue--Like Me

What would it be like to have your skin turn a different color?

It does happen.

Recent news accounts have told of Paul’s Karason’s skin turning blue. Karason, who lived in Oregon until moving recently to California, drinks water containing colloidal silver. He believes that his skin turned blue not because he drinks that substance but because he applied it directly to his face. His skin condition, called Argyria, has been linked to the use of colloidal silver. Karason said that he moved to California hoping that he would find more acceptance there.

There have also been some recent news stories about the skin of a black man turning white. His name is Lee Thomas; he is an anchor and entertainment reporter for a television station in Detroit. He has a condition called vitiligo, which destroys pigment-making cells. Thomas has written a book about the experience called Turning White: A Memoir of Change. He shares his condition is with some 65 million people around the world and some two million in the United States.

I was born white. I know how to be nothing else. It is important, I believe, for me to try to understand how someone of a different race or from a different culture might see things. Many of our problems can be traced to the human tendencies to think that (1) everybody sees things the way we do or (2) everybody should see things the way we do.

I do not mean to suggest that all whites see things one way or that all blacks see things one way or that all Hispanics see things one way. That is certainly not the case. But it is also the case that we tend to be conditioned in some ways by our heritage and our culture.

It would be eye-opening if I could be of another race for just a little while. Indeed, it would be enlightening if all of us could have that experience. I wonder how race relations might change if everybody who is European-American could spend a few days being African-American and a few days being Asian-American. I wonder how they might change if folks of all any and every race could have such an experience?

What if we could expand on the concept? What if we could each spend some time being of different nationalities? How might things change if we each had to serve a term as a North Korean, as a Brazilian, as an Iraqi, or as a Russian? How might things change if our world leaders had literally to spend some time in each other’s shoes?

What if we could each spend some time being adherents of different religions? I don’t man just paying lip service to some other belief system but really, actually practicing other religions as true believers? How might things be different if Christians had to spend a few days being Muslim and if Muslims had to spend a few days being Christian? What if a Christian could be an atheist for a while and an atheist a Christian?

I was born white, I was born American, I was born Southern, and I was practically born Christian. Others are born in different settings. We err when we let our particular ways of viewing reality, even when those ways are shared with many other people, cause us to fail to try to understand and accept and get along with people whose experiences, background, and worldview are different.

It’s not that I want to be different than I am or that I want others to be different than they are. It’s just that I want us to stop letting our differences stand in the way of progress and peace.

I believe in the way of Jesus Christ enough to believe that Christians should lead the way in such rapprochement. I also believe in that way enough to say that we should be humble enough to follow the lead of others if we won’t lead the way ourselves.

I don’t want everyone else to be white like I am anymore than I want them to want me to be black or brown like they are.

I just want our common and shared humanity to matter more than our differing pigmentation.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Post at EthicsDaily.com

My post "The More Things Change, The More They Change: A Christmas Memoir" appears at EthicsDaily.com today.

I am grateful to Bob Allen for using it.

In the Meantime: Be Amazed

(A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent based on Isaiah 7:10-16 & Matthew 1:18-25)

The key to having a legitimate experience with the Christ of Christmas may be to make this admission: “I don’t understand.”

That is because the human tendency is to think that in understanding something we have placed ourselves in a position to control and domesticate and use it for our own purposes.

On the other hand, you can stand in awe of something that you don’t understand. You can stand amazed in the presence of something that you don’t understand. Here is a paradox: in the case of Christmas, it is when you admit that you don’t understand it that you put yourself in a position to get it.

Indeed, there may be no admission that is more central to the life of faith than this one: “I don’t understand.” Wonder and amazement are prerequisite to faith.

There are so many things about the coming of the Son of God into this world that I cannot understand. With due respect to everyone here today, I doubt that you understand, either.

You can’t understand a virginal conception—but you can stand in wonder and amazement of the Savior who was so conceived. And you can “get” him—when you believe.

In the words of Philip Yancey,

The events of Christmas point inescapably to what seems like an oxymoron: a humble God. The God who came to earth came not in a raging whirlwind nor in a devouring fire. Unimaginably, the Maker of all things shrank down, down, down, so small as to become an ovum, a single fertilized egg barely visible to the naked eye, an egg that would divide and redivide until a fetus took shape, enlarging cell by cell inside a nervous teenager. [Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), p. 36]

It’s too amazing to understand—but it’s amazing enough to cause you to stand in awe and then to believe.

You can’t understand the preexistent Son of God being born as a little, messy, squirming baby—but you can stand in wonder and amazement of the child who was born that way. And you can “get” him—when you believe.

As Brennan Manning put it, “God entered into our world not with the crushing impact of unbearable glory, but in the way of weakness, vulnerability and need. On a wintry night in an obscure cave, the infant Jesus was a humble, naked, helpless God who allowed us to get close to him.” [Brennan Manning, “Shipwrecked at the Stable,” in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001), p. 187]

It’s too amazing to understand—but it’s amazing enough to cause you to stand in awe and then to believe.

You can’t understand the Son of God being born to two ordinary, common folks—but you can stand in wonder and amazement of the Savior who was so born. And you can “get” him—when you believe.

God entered our world not by coming out of the sky in clouds of glory but by becoming a little baby. He came not to the palace of the king or to the mansions of the rich—but to a poor working-class couple.

It’s too amazing to understand—but it’s amazing enough to cause you to stand in awe and then to believe.

You can’t understand the Messiah having a feed trough for a bed—but you can stand in wonder and amazement of the Messiah who was laid there. And you can “get” him—when you believe.

God entered our world not by coming into the places of comfort and power but rather by coming to the best simple place that his simple parents could improvise for him. When God made his way into the world he came not to folks who had it made but rather to folks who just had to make do.

It’s too amazing to understand—but it’s amazing enough to cause you to stand in awe and then to believe.

You certainly can’t understand a God who would love us so much that he would go so far to make himself available to us and thereby to show his love to us—but you can stand in wonder and amazement of such love. And you can “get” it—when you believe.

Listen to Brennan Manning again:

Do you think you could contain Niagara Falls in a teacup?
Is there anyone in our midst who pretends to understand the awesome love in the heart of the Abba of Jesus that inspired, motivated and brought about Christmas? The shipwrecked at the stable kneel in the presence of mystery.
[Manning, p. 187]

Can we understand all of these Christmas truths? No. Can we explain them? No. But can we stand in awe and wonder before them? Yes. Can we believe in the Savior whose story they tell? Yes. Can the world of that first Christmas break into the world in which you are living at this Christmas? Yes.

That’s what happened to Imogene Herdman. Most of you have read or watched her story in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson. Imogene and her brothers and sisters had never heard the story of Jesus. They went to church one Sunday because a schoolmate had exaggerated about the vast amounts of sweets that were doled out at Sunday School. There they heard about auditions for the children’s Christmas pageant. So, they muscled their way into the starring roles, with Imogene securing the part of Mary. The details of it all boggled the Herdmans’ minds. It’s more than an adult mind can grasp, after all, much less the mind of a child who hasn’t grown up with the story. At the end of the pageant, though, something of the truth of it all breaks in on Imogene. I think that something of the love of it all breaks in on her. And there she sits—still Imogene with her tough life and dirty face—with tears running down her face.

Did she understand it? No. Did she stand in awe at it and in amazement over it? Yes. Did she “get” it? Yes.

Perhaps we can think of it in these ways.

We are so small—so God became small in order that in our smallness we might know him.

We are so human—so God became human in order that in our humanness we might know him.

We suffer so—so God suffered in order that in our suffering we might know him.

Here in the meantime, in this time between the Advents, there is so much that we need to do. But at the beginning of it all, at the heart of it all, lies wonder, awe, and amazement.

So…be amazed—and believe. Take the leap of faith and believe in the God who came to our world in such simple but yet such amazing and paradoxical ways.

Be amazed—and repent. Turn from your life of self-centeredness and wandering and turn to the God who loves you that much.

Be amazed—and obey. Listen to God. Respond to God. Trust as he wants you to trust. Follow like he wants you to follow. Know his love like he wants you to know it.

But please, just let it come over you. Let the amazing grace and unfathomable love of God wash over you. Let the miracle of it all overwhelm you.

And be amazed.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

A Few of My Favorite Things, Part Four: A Christmas Story


It was a Thanksgiving Day in the early 1990s. Our family had left the Turkey Day feasts of my extended family and had arrived at the lodge at Unicoi State Park just outside the faux Alpine village of Helen, Georgia. We checked into the lodge and ate a nice supper of hot dogs from a Circle K, which was the only place we could find open.

We settled in to watch the lighting of the Rich’s Christmas tree on television. It had been a long day and soon everybody but me was asleep.

I wanted to watch some television. As I engaged in that manly pursuit of channel surfing, a movie caught my eye. I had never seen it before. It was about a little boy’s pursuit of his ideal Christmas present: a “Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-Shot Air Rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time,” as the boy described it. I struggled to suppress my laughter, not wanting to awaken my family. The next day I told Debra that she just had to see this film.

It was called A Christmas Story. The movie is based on the writings of humorist Jean Shepherd. It has really caught on since those days. The cable channel TBS has an annual twenty-four marathon airing of it. Just about everybody I know has seen it at least once.

The boy who wants the air rifle is named Ralphie Parker. Ralphie tries everything to let it be known how much he wants that rifle for Christmas. But everyone—his mother, his teacher, even the department store Santa Claus—tells him, “You’ll shoot your eye out!”

The movie, which, as one writer said, has no discernible plot, moves from one vignette to another, some of which happen in “real life” and some of which occur in Ralphie’s fantasies. Among those vignettes are such classic scenes as Ralphie’s brother Randy eating like “Mommie’s little piggie,” Ralphie fighting off Black Bart’s gang, Ralphie’s friend Flick sticking his tongue to a frozen flag pole, Mr. Parker’s “major award,” the consequences of Ralphie saying “Oh, fudge,” the “Scott Farkus Affair” (as it came to be known), and Chinese turkey.

And that’s just scratching the surface.

The tradition at our house is to watch A Christmas Story on December 23. It’s one of our favorite Christmas movies.

Now, some would point out that there is nothing of the true meaning of Christmas in this Christmas film. It is true that there is nothing here of the inbreaking of God into this world through the coming of the Christ child. There is much here, though, of the wonder of Christmas and of the joy of family. Such are universal blessings and they are to be celebrated as such.

So lighten up, mellow out, and have a good time with this fun movie.

The Ruffins do—every December 23rd!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A Few of My Favorite Things, Part Three: Christmas Tree Ornaments


The Christmas trees of my childhood were nice but unspectacular. My father would go cut a tree from the woods on his home place. We would decorate it with colored lights and with what we called “icicles” but what most folks would call tinsel.

My mother and I would engage in annual conflict over the icicles. She wanted them placed individually and rather daintily on the branches; I preferred to grab handfuls of them and lob them grenade-style onto the tree. Her way was better.

The ornaments on our tree for the most part held no special meaning. We would use boxes of round ornaments that were either red or gold. They were very round, very plain, and would have been very boring had they not been on the Christmas tree under which were all the presents.

I remember only two ornaments that were special in a personal way. One was the little green stocking that I mentioned in yesterday’s post; I still have it. The other was a snowman that I had made in elementary school out of flour and water and other ingredients. It lasted a few years but finally cracked up.

Things are much different in the home that Debra and I have established. We have no generic or boring ornaments hanging on our tree. We did in the beginning, but over the years we have built up a vast collection of ornaments, all of which mean something to us. To take them out of their boxes and place them on the tree each year is to relive the wonderful life together with which God has blessed Debra, Joshua, Sara, and me.

Some mark momentous occasions. Among those are the ornaments from our “First Christmas Together” in 1978 (celebrated in Macon, GA), Joshua’s first Christmas in 1984 (celebrated in Louisville, KY), and Sara’s first Christmas in 1987 (celebrated in Adel, GA).

Some recall the plays in which Joshua and Sara appeared. We have a pig ornament because Sara was in Charlotte’s Web, a hot rod because Joshua was in Grease, and Lucy and Charlie Brown ornaments because both of them had lead roles in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

Some cause us to think about activities and interests that have been important to us. So, there is a “karate kid” because Joshua studied karate, a ballerina because Sara took dance, a Phi Mu ornament because that is Sara’s sorority, an I Love Lucy ornament because Sara loves that old TV show, and a Yellow Submarine lunchbox ornament (complete with a thermos) because I like the Beatles.

Some bring to mind institutions that have been important in our lives, including Mercer University, LaGrange College, and Augusta State University.

Some commemorate trips that we have made over the years: a Liberty Bell ornament from Philadelphia, a needlepoint egg from Cabo san Lucas, and Buckingham Palace Guards from London.

There are many others but you get the idea. Our Christmas tree ornaments tell the story of our life together. That’s why they are among my favorite things.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A Few of My Favorite Things, Part Two: Christmas Stockings


“The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there,” the classic poem says.

The house in which I grew up had no chimney. Maybe that’s why my family did not do Christmas stockings.

There is no sadness implied in that observation. We had plenty of Christmas without stockings.

Stockings were a part of the tradition of my step-mother’s family. So, when my father married Imogene, a stocking with my father’s name on it and one with my name on it went up next to those of Imogene, her children Danny and Kathy, and her mother Mrs. Ross. When Debra and I got married, she got a stocking, too. It was a very nice tradition so we adopted it in our household.

Our family has been blessed to live in houses with fireplaces and mantles. So, whether we have been in Louisville, in Adel, in Nashville, or in Augusta, we have hung the stockings on the mantle. Well, that’s where the ones that belong to the human beings in the family are. The stockings of Fritz (the big dog), Otis (the cat), and Jack (the little dog) are tacked to the door beside the fireplace. I’m frankly surprised that no one has thought to put one up for Jimmy Stewart (Joshua’s chinchilla) or Corky (Sara’s beta fish). They probably will after they read this.

Each human member of the family puts at least one thing in everybody’s stocking. Naturally, Debra is the one that really fills the stockings that belong to the children and to me. I put a lot of stuff in hers.

We open them on Christmas Eve. Our Christmas Eve has the structure of a high church worship service. First, we attend the Christmas Eve worship service. Second, we come home and eat a supper of submarine sandwiches. Third, we open our stockings. Fourth, we watch It’s a Wonderful Life. Fifth, we go to bed to await Santa Claus.

It’s a fun night.

There is another stocking in our house the origin of which I wish I could remember. Among all of our Christmas tree ornaments is a small, simple, green stocking. The hanger is attached to it via a small safety pin. I have had that little stocking for as long as I can remember; it goes back to my childhood. Unfortunately, I can’t remember who gave it to me. But, it’s a connection with my childhood. When we decorate the tree, my family always makes sure that I am the one to hang it on the tree.

It’s too small to hold a gift. But it, like most good things, is a gift in and of itself.

Monday, December 17, 2007

In the Meantime: Be Compassionate

(A sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent based on Isaiah 35:1-10 & Matthew 11:2-11)

Our Advent topic is “In the Meantime.” On the First Sunday of Advent I said that here in the meantime between the First and Second Advents of Jesus Christ we who are his followers are to be ready. On the Second Sunday I said that we are to be at peace. Here on the Third Sunday of Advent I want to say that we should be compassionate.

It is better to be compassionate than not to be compassionate. Furthermore, acting on your compassion is better than just feeling compassion. Those truths are universal; they are not limited to Christians.

But surely Christians, of all people, should have hearts full of compassion and lives filled with acts of compassion. Compassion is worth having just for the sake of having it; that is true whether you are a Christian or not. We Christians, though, are filled with the love and the Spirit of God through his Son Jesus Christ and we really should need no other motivation to have and to practice compassion.

Ask yourself: what are Christians like? Here is my partial list.

Christians are kind.

Christians are gentle.

Christians are loving.

Christians are full of grace.

Christians are compassionate.

Those should be the facts into which we are growing, not the possibilities that we are pondering as options. When we are filled with the love and grace of God, how can it be otherwise?

Furthermore, compassion is for us an eschatological reality. That is, the meeting of people’s needs is a sign that the kingdom of God has come, is coming, and will come. When John the Baptist sent messengers to Jesus asking if he was the “one who is to come,” Jesus replied with words that not only summarized what he had been doing but also called to mind the words of the prophet Isaiah. The things that Jesus had been doing to touch and to change people’s lives were exactly the kinds of things that Isaiah had said would happen when the Messiah came. Jesus did what he did because in him the Kingdom of God had come.

What was John worried about? He had earlier proclaimed that Jesus was the one who was to come. Now he asks Jesus whether he is in the fact the one. John was an authentic prophet—Jesus said that he was “more than a prophet.” John was also a product of his people and a student of his holy book. They and it taught that when the Messiah came, there would be judgment of the wicked and vindication of the righteous. So John preached that the one who would come after him would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

Yet Jesus went around associating with sinners. He went around touching and loving and showing grace to sinners. He did not see the diseases and defects of people as signs of their sin and thus causes for judgment; he saw them as opportunities to show the grace of God and to demonstrate the power of the Kingdom. He offered the good news of God to the poor. Jesus challenged John to see the things he was doing as signs of the arrival of the Kingdom of God. He reminded John that the prophets had expected acts such as his when the Kingdom came.

Then Jesus said, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Matthew 11:6). He was challenging John to accept the kind of Messiah that Jesus was and to maintain his allegiance to him. “My way is the way of the Kingdom,” Jesus was saying. “These things I do—those are Kingdom acts. Don’t let them cause you to doubt. Exactly the opposite should happen—let them cause you to believe.” Jesus’ way—and thus God’s way—Jesus was saying, was the way of service and sacrifice. In effect, Jesus was challenging John to place his fingers in the nail prints in his hand and in the wound in his side long before he told Thomas to do so. He wanted John to understand that the acts of compassion—the acts of mercy and love and healing and preaching—were the signs of the Kingdom.

In short, Jesus told John that the very acts of compassion that surprised him were in fact the evidence that the Kingdom had come.

Such acts are still the sign that the Kingdom has come. Therefore, you would expect me now to proclaim, “So, let’s get out there and do acts of compassion so that they’ll know the Kingdom has come.” There would be some merit to that. The challenge is certainly placed before us. But is that what Jesus was doing? Was he out there healing and preaching and loving in order to prove that the Kingdom had come? No—the Kingdom had come in him and therefore those things had to happen. They happened because the Kingdom had happened. They thus have to happen through us through whom the works of the Kingdom continue.

So I must say frankly that it bothers me when I see a lack of compassion in you or in me because I wonder just how well we are living in the Kingdom.

Now I want to confess something else that bothers me. What are the implications of this truth: folks who aren’t Christians are just as capable of compassion and kindness as Christians are?

This past Thursday (12/13/07) in a Starbucks Coffee drive-through lane, a customer in line behind Arthur Rosenfeld was angrily honking and yelling at him. Rather than respond in kind, Rosenfeld paid for the irate patron’s order. That set off a chain of kindness that lasted all day long as customer after customer paid for the order of the person behind them. Now, we would really love that story if I could finish it by saying that Rosenfeld was a Christian and that he was intentionally sharing the love of Christ and that the love of Christ got passed right down the line at that drive-through all day long. But I can’t say that. In fact, the story noted that Rosenfeld is “a Tai-Chi master” who “responded with a bit of Zen.”

"It wasn't an idea to pay anything forward, nor was it even a random act of kindness, it was a change of consciousness," he said. "Take this negative and change it into something positive." That’s a very Eastern philosophy way of talking and living. Rosenfeld’s action apparently had no overtly Christian motive behind it.

But you know—it’s just possible that the love of Christ and the Kingdom of God crept through somehow anyway, isn’t it? Would you want to say, “No, it didn’t—not if the people exhibiting kindness didn’t mean for it to” and thereby limit the power and grace of God?

In a similar vein, would you want to say that the love of Christ and the kingdom of God cannot be made obvious in the compassionate acts of Christians even when we don’t explicitly make our message known? This week’s brouhaha over our sister church’s ministry of providing shoes to school children got me to thinking about that. Naturally, the Christians involved in that ministry believe that through it they are expressing the love of Christ. Naturally, some folks are concerned that the children not be required to submit to a religious ritual or to overt evangelization as a condition of receiving the shoes. The proper result is that the volunteers have to be very careful not to cross that line.

But again I ask: would any of us say that in those acts of compassion the love of Christ and the Kingdom of God do not break through? Would any of us limit the power and grace of God by saying that unless we make the message overt God can’t work?

And yet, as much as I believe that God can work through our actions when we can’t be overt and as much as I believe that God can work even through the actions of people who don’t claim to be acting on his behalf, I also believe that we need to be as self-conscious as possible about our identity as citizens of the Kingdom and as disciples of Christ.

We should be aware of our poverty before God so that we can be brothers and sisters to those in poverty around us. We should be always aware that we are among the “least of these” so that we can be sisters and brothers to the “least of these” around us. We should be intentional about growing in his grace and in his love so that we just can’t help but feel and show compassion. We should be intentional about performing acts of compassion as a way of announcing the present and coming Kingdom of God. We should preach the good news to the poor and to the hurting with our words and with our actions.

In this meantime between the First and Second Advents of Christ, let us make his present presence obvious by our compassion.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

A Few of My Favorite Things, Part One: Little Rodents Singing About Christmas


My taste in music has not always run in rational directions. I once bought a Partridge Family album. One of my favorite albums as I was entering puberty was Jingle Jangle by the Archies. There was a time when I preferred the Monkees to the Beatles; I even joined the Monkees fan club. Once, I had just enough money to buy one new album. I chose Golden Earring over Lynyrd Skynyrd.

I realize that I have just frittered away whatever coolness points I may have had, if any.

Thankfully, my tastes have matured and changed.

Here is an opinion of mine that has not changed, though: when I was a child I thought that Christmas with the Chipmunks was one of the greatest Christmas albums ever made; now that I am a man, I still believe that Christmas with the Chipmunks is one of the greatest Christmas albums ever made.

Why?

First of all, the three-part harmony created by Alvin, Simon and Theodore is amazing.

Second, if you want pathos with your Christmas, it’s in there. Hearing David Seville sing longingly of wanting a white Christmas will break your heart. And if hearing Alvin exclaim at the end of the song, “Hey Dave, look, it’s snowing!” doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, you need to get your tear ducts cleared out.

Third, there is high comedy in this album, too. When you hear Alvin take off in his own direction on Over the River and Through the Woods and Jingle Bells you’ll laugh and laugh. Of course, he’s an egomaniacal showoff, but you’ll still laugh.

Fourth, a special guest star sings on one of the songs. I won’t give away his name, but he had a shiny nose. And he sings like he has a head cold.

Finally, the album is just plain fun. While Christmas is many things, it certainly ought to be fun. So put this album on and smile.

Now, some folks might complain that there is none of the true meaning of Christmas on this album. Indeed, there are no Christmas hymns or Christian carols. I think that’s ok. I mean, do you really want a bunch of Chipmunks singing about the birth of the Christ Child? I didn’t think so.

So, if you’ve got it, play it. If you don’t have it, go buy it.

By the way, sometimes I still hear I Think I Love You, Jingle Jangle, and Take the Last Train to Clarksville in my head.

And one more thing: I really like the Carpenters.

But not as much as I like the Chipmunks.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Good Will to All and Separation of Church and State

This Sunday is the Third Sunday of Advent. My sermon, with which I am still wrestling (the sermon is winning), will deal with the subject of compassion. The text is Matthew 11:2-11, in which John the Baptist sends some of his disciples to ask Jesus whether he is the one who is coming or whether they should look for another. Jesus told John’s disciples to go back and tell him what they witnessed: the deaf hear, the lame walk, the dead are raised, and the poor hear the good news.

It seems to me that Jesus was saying that such acts of compassion and grace were the signifiers of the presence of the Kingdom of God. In my sermon I will say that acts of compassion in the here and now by the followers of Jesus are signifiers to those around us that the Kingdom of God is among us—and is coming. Somehow such acts, when motivated by the grace and love and presence of God, connect us with God’s great work of salvation that he is accomplishing.

One question with which I am wrestling is this: what makes a Christian’s acts of compassions different than those of a non-Christian? It is foolish to claim that a non-Christian is not capable of the same acts of compassion and even sacrifice as a Christian. It is foolish to claim that a declared allegiance to Christ automatically makes one more compassionate than a non-Christian. Anybody who looks around knows better.

Still, I am convinced that when a person has experienced the grace and love and compassion of Christ, that person will become more and more compassionate and that growing compassion will show itself in consistent acts of compassion.

It is natural, then, that individual Christians and Christian congregations will look for opportunities to exhibit compassion by helping folks who are in need. We seem especially to look for such opportunities at Christmas time.

For the last few years, the First Baptist Church of North Augusta, South Carolina, has conducted a program called Laces 4 Love. Through that program they have provided new shoes for disadvantaged children in the Aiken and Edgefield County school systems. They provide about 12,000 pairs of shoes through this program. It’s a good thing.

This year, though, Americans United for Separation of Church and State has objected to the program. Their objections stem from remarks by Mark Owens, the founder of the ministry, that were reported in North Augusta Today. Owens said that when the volunteers deliver the shoes, they remove the children’s old shoes and wash their feet like Jesus did for his disciples at Passover.

Here are the opening lines from Americans United’s press release on the matter:

Americans United for Separation of Church and State has urged public school officials in South Carolina to discontinue a church-run program that subjects disadvantaged students to ritual foot-washing as part of a shoe giveaway.

In letters sent Dec. 10 to officials in Aiken and Edgefield Counties, Americans United objects to the “Laces4Love” ministry run by the First Baptist Church of North Augusta. The program provides new shoes to needy children but asks them to participate in the Christian rite of foot-washing.

Americans United said the activity clearly violates the constitutional separation of church and state. The school districts, AU said, should discontinue their involvement in any program that seeks to sponsor proselytism or religious rituals.


Apparently, the “foot-washing” consists of using some wet-wipes to clean the children’s feet before they don their new shoes.

School officials insist that no proselytizing takes place.

Here’s the way that I suspect it works. The good folks at the church want to provide shoes to disadvantaged children. They want to do that because they believe the love of Christ compels them to do so and because they want to help the children. I imagine that both the church and the schools are well aware of the fact that care must be taken that the lines of separation between church and state not be crossed. I further suspect that cleaning the children’s feet is a matter of practicing good sanitation. But, in the hearts of the volunteers, in cleaning the children’s feet they are performing a Christ-like action. I doubt that anyone ever comes right out and says that to a child—and if they do, they shouldn’t.

But, honesty should compel us Christians to admit that we should not, cannot, and will not in our hearts separate such acts of compassion from the fact that we act out of conviction that the Kingdom of God is present in and through us and that what we are doing is part of our living out the principles of that Kingdom. Honestly, we hope that the love of Christ comes through in what we are doing.

Still, we should respect the principle of separation of church and state and thus be careful in how we carry out such ministries.

A story in today’s Augusta Chronicle reported that “a group of North Augusta missionaries Thursday donated shoes to Greendale Elementary School pupils and as school officials had promised, no religious strings appeared to be attached.” The story went on to report that the children were given wet wipes with which they cleaned their own feet.

I am a separation of church and state Baptist. I believe that government sanction of Christianity is the quickest and surest way to quash the genuineness of the faith. But in this case, I believe that Americans United overreacted, made a mountain out of a molehill, and tried to stir up a tempest in a teapot.

We Christians want to help where there is hurt. We also want to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. We understand that there are lines that we must be careful not to cross. We believe that through our acts of kindness the love of Jesus is communicated without any overt effort at evangelization.

We would be lying if we denied any religious motivation.

We would be lying if we said that we did not believe that the Spirit of God is at work in what we are doing.

But our schools and our communities will be greatly impoverished if our churches are ever denied the opportunity to help as and where we can, so long as we follow the rules.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Other Wise Man


Advent Season at The Hill Baptist Church includes many special services. This Sunday evening we will have our annual “Night of Christmas Stories.” At that service various church members read classic and contemporary stories of the season. Some of the stories are original compositions by members of our church family; the story The Advent Calendar that I posted on the blog several days ago is a story that I wrote for a past year’s service. This year a family in our church will present a story that they wrote.

But most of the stories that we share were written by other folks. Some of them are acknowledged classics.

Unfortunately, most great Christmas stories are too long to use. That is the case with one of my favorites, The Story of the Other Wise Man by Henry van Dyke. What follows is a summary of that story.

Artaban was to join the other three wise men on their trek to Israel to see the new king whose birth the strange star signified. He had sold his house and all his possessions in order to acquire his gift for the child, a gift comprised of three jewels: a sapphire, a ruby, and a pearl. The agreement he had with his friends was that when the star they had seen appeared again, he would meet them where they were and they would journey together to Israel. He was ten days’ journey from his three friends and they made it clear that they would wait no longer than ten days.

Sure enough, the star appeared and Artaban set out. On the tenth day of his journey, when he was just a few hours from the rendezvous point, he came across an injured man. What should he do? His conscience told him to help the man, but his schedule told him to press on. His conscience won out and he stopped to aid the injured man. As it happened, the man was a Hebrew who told Artaban that the great king of the Jews was to be born in Bethlehem, not Jerusalem.

Artaban left and reached the place of meeting, but his friends had already left. Artaban had to sell the sapphire to acquire provisions for his own journey to Bethlehem.

When he arrived at Bethlehem he found no sign of the family he was seeking. He did chance upon a house where a young mother was caring for her small son. She told him that a family such as he sought had been in Bethlehem and that they had attracted much attention. But immediately after being visited by three men much like Artaban the family had left. She heard that they had gone to Egypt.

Disappointed, Artaban prepared to leave, but was stopped by the sound of screaming and crying from the streets of Bethlehem. “They’re killing the children,” came the cries. Artaban stood in the doorway of the house at it was approached by a soldier wielding a blood-stained sword. Artaban reached into the folds of his robe and took out the ruby. He said that the ruby was for a soldier who understood that there was no one else in the house. The soldier took the ruby and went away.

Artaban then traveled to Egypt in search of the newborn king. There he met a rabbi who told him that the king of the Jews would not be found in the halls of power but with the poor, the needy, and the afflicted. Artaban journeyed all over Egypt and the rest of the Middle East, looking everywhere among the unfortunate and destitute for the king. He never found him. For thirty-three years he looked, and everywhere he went he helped the poor and sick and needy in every way he could.

An old man now, Artaban traveled one more time to Jerusalem. It was Passover. Hordes of people were moving together in the same direction. Someone told him that a person who some called the King of the Jews was about to be executed. Just then, a young woman who was being sold to satisfy her father’s debts broke free from some soldiers who were holding her and threw herself at his feet. Artaban used his last jewel, the pearl, to ransom her. Suddenly a tremendous earthquake struck and a piece of tile fell from a building, striking Artaban in the head. The ransomed girl held the head of the seriously wounded wise man. She heard something that sounded musical but almost like a voice. Artaban spoke.

“Not so, my Lord: For when saw I thee an hungered and fed thee? Or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw I thee a stranger, and took thee in? Or naked, and clothed thee? When saw I thee sick or in prison, and came unto thee? Three-and-thirty years have I looked for thee; but I have never seen thy face, nor ministered to thee, my King.”

Then she heard the voice again, only this time the words came through: “Verily I say unto thee, inasmuch as thou hast done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, thou hast done it unto me.” And Artaban died, having found the King.


I love that story because of the truth it tells: it is in serving others that we find the King.

The book is still in print and is worth acquiring and reading.

There is also a very good television movie from 1985 entitled The Fourth Wise Man that is based on van Dyke’s story. It stars Martin Sheen and is available on DVD.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A Mickey Mouse Kind of Christmas


We spent Christmas at Disney World one year.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Sara was eleven and Joshua was fourteen and Debra and I were younger than we are now. Our family has always dearly loved the Christmas season; we still do. Sometimes, though, the buildup is so intense that the letdown is precipitous. So Debra and I got the idea of taking a nice, exciting trip for the holiday. I called a travel agent and faster than you could say “MasterCard” we had purchased a nice package deal. We’d fly out of Nashville on Christmas Eve morning at 6:00 and arrive in Orlando later that morning to begin five days of Christmas fun in the sun with about a zillion of our closest friends.

So we packed up our clothes and our toiletries and our presents and we went to bed early on the night before Christmas Eve. We awoke the next morning to find Nashville covered in ice. I understand now that if you have any question about the status of your flight you really should call the airline before you go to the airport but we didn’t do that. We made several very careful trips out to our car and loaded our suitcases into the trunk.

Then we tried to leave.

Those of you have lived in or visited Nashville know that it is quite hilly. The street on which we lived dipped right in front of our house. In one direction was a slight incline and in the other direction was a more significant incline. The path we needed to take took us in the direction of the slight incline. The wheels of the car began to spin but the car wasn’t going too far. The ice was preventing us from gaining traction. But we finally made it off our street. Then we turned left to head toward the airport but that road was so icy we couldn’t navigate it. We had to turn around and go another way. At that point I was wondering if we’d ever make it to the airport and if we did what we’d find. But we pressed on.

We did make it to the airport and what we found was a parking lot so covered with ice that you couldn’t see the lines that separated the rows of parking spaces from one another, much less the lines that separated the individual parking spaces. So we just parked beside a car that was parked beside another car that was parked beside another car. If they towed one of us, I figured, they’d have to tow all of us. We checked our bags, checked in at our gate, and in a little while boarded our flight.

Only when we were aloft did we learn that the flight had almost been cancelled; the plane that was supposed to take us was not able to leave another airport because of the same storm. The airline had brought a plane in from Atlanta in order to avoid canceling the flight.

I don’t think of Nashville and Orlando being all that far apart, but I guess they are. The temperature in Nashville when we left was twenty degrees. The temperature in Orlando when we landed a couple of hours later was eighty degrees. We rode a bus from the airport to Disney World where we checked in to our very nice room at the Caribbean Beach resort.

And then we started doing the Christmas stuff you do when you’re spending Christmas at Disney World.

We rode rides. The Tower of Terror at Disney MGM is my favorite. We ate food. It was so-so but it was expensive. There is one section of the park that looks like a normal neighborhood. Disney had brought in the Christmas lights display that some fellow had put up at his house for years until his neighbors complained so much that he had to stop doing it. I guess that Disney World doesn’t get such complaints. They gave you 3-D glasses to wear as you walked through the neighborhood that created the effect that angels were flying at your head. That was neat.

One night we went to the Polynesian Resort for a Christmas dinner show. We had a nice meal, listened to some Hawaiian Christmas songs, and watched some dancers perform some Hawaiian Christmas dances. I didn’t know there were such things, so it was an educational experience for me.

From listening to people talk I gathered that some families spent every Christmas holiday at Disney World. I suppose that if your family is scattered all over the country there are worse places to use as a gathering place.

I was amazed, though, at how many people were there. There were thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of them. We didn’t even see the famous Disney Christmas Parade because we couldn’t get to it for all the people. The Animal Kingdom had just opened that year so we decided to visit it; we lasted about two hours because it was impossible to do anything because of the crowds.

All in all it was a nice trip. It was a little odd, though, to go to bed on Christmas Eve with no Christmas tree and with the presents just piled up on the floor. We woke on Christmas morning and gathered on the hotel room beds to open our presents. I don’t remember any gifts in particular, but I think that everybody liked what they got. And I don’t remember which of our children said it or maybe they both said it at the same time, but one or both of them said, “This is nice. Let’s don’t ever do this again.” What they meant was that they wanted to be home for Christmas. There are lots of nice places in the world, and they both love Disney World, but to them, there was no place like home for Christmas.

I learned a valuable lesson from that Mickey Mouse Christmas. When it comes to Christmas, the simple is more valuable than the spectacular. We had a spectacular trip. But we really missed the simple Christmas of home.

Now, some spectacular things happened on the first Christmas, to be sure. If you could ask the shepherds, they would testify to the spectacular. Angels appeared to them, after all. But, even though something miraculous was going on in the coming of his Son into the world, God chose to work for the most part in simple ways and through simple things: a baby being born, for example.

I learned that Christmas that when it comes to Christmas, simple is better. I hope that my family and your family will always keep Christmas in the simple ways that bring the most joy. Such Christmas keeping honors the Savior who was born to a simple family in a simple stable in a simple town for a simple purpose: to show the love of God.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Article at EthicsDaily.com

An article by me entitled New Baptist Covenant Celebration Must Avoid Appearance of Partisanship appears today at EthicsDaily.com.

It is an abridged version of a post that appeared here at On the Jericho Road. To read the unabridged version, go here.

In the Meantime: Be at Peace

(A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent based on Isaiah 11:1-10 & Romans 14:4-13)

Here in the meantime—the meantime between the First and Second Advents of Jesus Christ—we who belong to the Lord are to be at peace.

And that seems very, very hard to accept and even harder to live.

When I say that we are to be at peace I run the risk of sounding like one of those ancient prophets of whom Jeremiah declared, “They preach ‘Peace, peace’ when there is no peace!” It sounds like I’m saying that we should act like everything is all right when we know good and well that it isn’t.

No one sitting in this room has ever known a time when there were not “wars and rumors of wars.” Oh, there were times when our nation was not actively at war but we all knew that we were at risk.

I grew up during the Vietnam era. From the time I was eight years old the evening news broadcasts brimmed with reports on the battles of that long war. Once a week Walter Cronkite or Huntley and Brinkley would give us the weekly casualty count. I remember wondering—and I was very literal in my wondering—if we would be fighting that war for the rest of time.

Now we are engaged in protracted wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan. I am praying that our leaders will not deem it necessary to expand our military presence into our areas. When will those wars end? And even if they do end anytime soon, our leaders keep reminding us that we are engaged in a war against terrorists that has no end that they can perceive. Those terrorists hang over our heads like nuclear weapons used to do.

Then there is the threat of mass destruction. I have watched and read many of the works of fiction that have treated the theme of potential nuclear annihilation. Works like the novel On the Beach and the television movie The Day After were terrifying to me. Even Dr. Strangelove, which played nuclear war for laughs, was chilling. We don’t think about that much anymore, although maybe we should. Just this month Scientific American’s cover story reported on the move to upgrade America’s nuclear arsenal that is underway. We worry about other nations like Iran and North Korea acquiring nukes and we worry about an existing weapon falling into the hands of terrorists.

I haven’t even mentioned the fact that there is a dearth of peace in our personal relationships. People live in fear of one another. People are afraid to speak the truth to each other. We all want to categorize each other so that we can say, “There, I’ve got her labeled. She’s one of those and now I don’t have to go to all the trouble of dealing with her as a troublingly unique individual.” Even within the fellowship of the church we tend to pass judgment on one another and compare our righteousness with somebody else’s.

When I make that comparison my righteousness always comes out on top, naturally.

But I say again: here in the meantime between the First and Second Advents we who are Christians are to be at peace. The prophet Isaiah spoke of the peace that was to come. That’s the way that we think of peace, too; it is something that will come one day, when Jesus returns. There is nothing improper about that way of thinking. It will come, indeed.

Interestingly, Isaiah spoke these words when peace looked very unlikely for Judah. Conflict was raging all around. Wars and rumors of wars threatened to reduce the Davidic monarchy, which had once stood as a mighty cedar, to a pitiful stump. Indeed, Isaiah said that it would be so. In that context, Isaiah, seeing life with God-inspired eyes, said, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots” (11:1). Isaiah envisioned a time when that pitiful stump of the monarchy of David would bring forth a new king. That king would, because he would have the spirit of God and thus the heart of God, bring about perfect righteousness and perfect justice not just to Israel but to the whole world. He would judge the wicked and vindicate the righteous. Everything he did would be done in God’s way.

And what an era that king’s coming would usher in! Nothing less than a return to the paradise of Eden would be realized. All of creation would exist in harmony. The very nature of nature would be transformed. Perhaps most significantly, ancient enmities would be abolished; rather than living with the old hatred between people and serpents, a baby would be able to play with a poisonous viper and not be harmed. And if that could happen, then what other enmities could be brought to an end? There would truly be peace on earth—a peace brought about the Prince of Peace, a peace based on God’s law which after all is the law of love.

But, Isaiah, said, that did not exist in his “now”; it had to wait for God’s “then.”

God’s “then” did come; the Prince of Peace who came from the stump of David did break into this world. He came preaching and teaching and living out God’s ways of righteousness and justice and peace.

And we killed him. That’s the way of the world—we kill the Prince of Peace.

But he rose again and he will come again one day. So we still talk about how this prophecy of Isaiah will be fulfilled out there one day, still in God’s great “then.” That is proper talk. Obviously, our world is nowhere near a scene like the one painted by Isaiah.

Yet—we live in the here and now. Yet—we are the children of God right now. Yet—we are the followers of Jesus Christ in the present.

So I say again: in the meantime, we are to live in peace. How do we do that?

Here is one way: let us receive and live in the word of peace. The words of the prophet are for us. The words of the good news are for us. The words of Jesus are for us. There will one day be utter, final, and complete peace. We must live in that hope that is born from the truth to which we hold. But the Prince of Peace has already come. He is present in our hearts. He is present in this world. The peace in which we live in Christ is a far greater truth than the truth told by the broken, conniving, warring world. Let us receive the word of peace in faith and live it in hope.

Father Alfed Delp was a Jesuit priest who was imprisoned as a traitor by the Nazis. Listen to these words that he penned just a short while before he was hanged in 1945.

The horror of these times would be unendurable unless we kept being cheered and set upright again by the promises that are spoken. The angels of annunciation, speaking their message of blessing into the midst of anguish, scattering their seed of blessing that will one day spring up amid the night, call us to hope. These are not yet the loud angels of rejoicing and fulfillment that come out into the open, the angels of Advent. Quiet, inconspicuous, they come into rooms and before hearts as they did then. Quietly they bring God’s questions and proclaim to us the wonders of God, for whom nothing is impossible. [Alfred Delp, "The Shaking Reality of Advent," in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001), p. 88.]

Another way we can live in peace is to share and live out the word of peace. We do not in fact cry out “’Peace, peace’ when there is no peace.” We in fact have peace with God through Jesus Christ and we can bear witness to that peace with our words and with our lives. We know that while peace is already it is also not yet. We know the foretaste of glory divine that comes from having Jesus Christ in our hearts and having him change our relationships with other people. We have the blessed privilege of being the people of peace in a broken and warring world.

Hear Alfred Delp again. He said that if one wants to be truly alive during these trying times, one must “walk through these gray days oneself as an announcing messenger.”

So many need their courage strengthened, so many are in despair and in need of consolation, there is so much harshness that needs a gentle hand and an illuminating word, so much loneliness crying out for a word of release, so much loss and pain in search of inner meaning. God’s messengers know of the blessing that the Lord has cast like seed into these hours of history. [Delp, p. 89.]

In short, we need to be the messengers of peace in a world filled with conflict.

Thus the Prayer of St. Francis is an appropriate prayer for us:

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.
Amen.


In the classic Christmas poem that we sing as the carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” Longfellow spoke of how the Christmas bells proclaimed “Peace on earth, good will to men.” Then he said,

And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong, and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”


But then he affirmed,

“Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.”


Yes, hate is strong and mocks the song. And yes, the wrong shall fail and the right prevail and one day there will be peace.

In the meantime—we are the bells.

Friday, December 7, 2007

The More Things Change, the More They Change (A Christmas Memoir)


I was born in the Lamar County, Georgia Maternity Shelter which was located about a half-mile from my parents’ house. A few days later they wrapped me up and took me home and put me in my room and I stayed right there until I went off to college. For sixteen years Christmas Day began in that house on Memorial Drive in Barnesville and for sixteen years every Christmas was about the same.

I would go to bed on Christmas Eve so excited I could hardly sleep. Of course, part of the problem was that the last words I heard from Mama before I went to bed were “Go to sleep now; Santa Claus won’t come if you’re awake.” So I went to bed terrified that I wouldn’t be able to sleep and certain that if I didn’t sleep then there would be no gifts for me. In some ways our house was not a terribly romantic place to have Christmas Eve. We didn’t have a chimney. I asked Daddy once, “Seeing as how we have no chimney, how does Santa get into our house?” I expected a clever answer like “He comes up through the bathtub drain” or “He transforms himself into a vapor and comes in through the wall” or something like that. What I got was “I reckon he just comes through the front door.” That was disappointing but it made sense because we kept a key over the front door; Santa or his helpers or Ebenezer Scrooge or Frosty the Snowman or anybody else could have come in had they wished.

Very early on Christmas morning I would wake up; I’m talking 5:00 or 6:00. The rule was that I had to wake Mama and Daddy up and let them go into the living room to see if Santa had come before I went in. The other thing that was happening was that Daddy had to get his Brownie movie camera with its twin spot lights all fired up. Finally Mama would say “Lights, camera, action!” or “You can go in now” or something like that and I would walk into Christmas morning in all its glory. When the chaos subsided we would get ready to eat lunch with Mama’s family and open presents there. Then we’d drive the nine miles to Yatesville where, immediately upon our arrival, the present opening would commence again. We’d eat leftovers for supper and then head back home. Somewhere along the way Daddy would say, “Well, that’s that for another 365 days,” thereby plunging me into a depression that I would usually snap out of by Presidents’ Day. It was pretty much like that every Christmas for sixteen years.

Christmas 1975 was the one when everything changed. Mama died in June of that year. By Christmas time Daddy had begun to take steps to get on with his life. I had just finished my first quarter of college. I couldn’t see it then but everything was up in the air and all bets were off. I wanted to cling to the way things used to be but in so doing I was trying to cling to the way things were never going to be again and, truth be told, I was probably trying to cling to the way things never really had been in the first place. I mean, it had been good, but sometimes things look even grander in the rearview mirror, especially when you know, even if you don’t accept it, that they’re gone for good.

My Uncle Johnny, who has childhood memories of the aftermath of the Great Depression and of World War II, says that he agrees with his cousin Charles who said, “I don’t want to have anything to do with firewood and chicory coffee; they both remind me of hard times.” For years I was that way about artificial Christmas trees. Now, I meant no disrespect to those who use them. But here’s my deal. My parents had bought an artificial tree for $19.95 from Maxwell’s Five & Dime Store a couple of years before Mama died. I agreed to it as a concession to the need to make things easier around the house. It was kind of pitiful but it was green; at least it wasn’t silver with a multi-colored light shining on it. A couple of weeks before Christmas we’d all put the thing together and decorate it. That year, though, I got home from Mercer a couple of weeks before Christmas and, all by myself, put the tree up and decorated it. I don’t know if I was more sad or mad. I think that’s one reason that I insisted on a real tree for so long; well, that and they smell good and I guess I liked having to water it every day and having to clean up the needles.

That year, for the first time in my life I had absolutely no trouble going to sleep on Christmas Eve. When I woke up on Christmas morning it was 10:30. I looked at the clock and rolled over covered up in the sudden realization that I wasn’t a child anymore. I realized, too, that the world had changed. I thought at the time that it was broken and busted and warped and out of whack and absurd, but I was wrong about that. It had just changed.

Goodness, but there have been more changes since then.

How I remember 1977, the first Christmas that I went to Leary to be with Debra and her family. She was wearing faded blue jeans and a red gingham shirt when I got there. I can still see her wonderfully open and welcoming face.

How I remember 1978, the first Christmas after we got married.

How I remember 1979, our first Christmas without my father.

How I remember 1981, the Christmas of the year that we sank every dollar we had into an old house in Louisville and managed to scrape together enough pennies to give each other one small gift each.

How I remember 1984, Joshua’s first Christmas.

How I remember 1986, our first Christmas in Adel.

How I remember 1987, Sara’s first Christmas.

How I remember 1993, our first Christmas in Nashville.

How I remember 1996, our first Christmas without Debra’s parents.

How I remember 2003, our first Christmas with the good people of The Hill Baptist Church.

1975 was the first Christmas that I was faced with real change. I was not wrong to grieve over what I had lost but I was wrong to fight against the changes that were coming. There have been so many Christmases and so many changes since.

Christmas teaches us many things. I think that one of the truths that Christmas teaches us is that God is in the changes. After all, the coming of the baby Jesus to Bethlehem’s manger turned the world on its head. The earliest Christians were referred to as those who had turned the world upside down. Surely God can and does work through those events that turn our worlds upside down and inside out and crossways.

My prayer for all of us is that we will learn the grace of letting God mold us and shape us and make us into who he has formed us to be. It’s a funny thing now. When I look back over my life, I sure wish some of it hadn’t had to happen. But at the same time, I’m grateful for it all. That’s part of what Christmas has taught me: the more things change, the more they change.

Isn’t God good?

Oh, by the way: this will be the second year that we have used our nice artificial pre-lighted Christmas tree. I think it’s beautiful.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

A Presidential Candidate Speaks on Religion


Mitt Romney is to deliver an address today about religion.

I think this provides a good opportunity for us to revisit John Kennedy's classic and very Baptist-sounding speech on the same subject from the 1960 presidential campaign.

To read it or listen to it, go here.

A Tragic Blessing for Hanukkah

Congregation Children of Israel is a synagogue of Reform Judaism here in Augusta, Georgia. The fellowship is led by Rabbi Robert Klensin.

Our house is 1.5 miles from the synagogue.

Last night at 6:55 p.m. a single engine two-seat Piper airplane crashed into the side of the synagogue. Sadly, the pilot was killed. But none of the twelve people who were inside the building were injured. The building suffered only minor damage.

The Augusta Chronicle story on the incident noted that “the season of Hanukkah, which began Tuesday, is a time to count blessings; one is the making of miracles.” It is an interesting coincidence—Hanukkah commemorates the cleansing of the temple by the Maccabees in 165 BCE. Now during Hanukkah 2007 a synagogue is spared from severe damage and its congregants from harm.

Here’s another interesting coincidence: the event occurred during a time when many of the Christian churches in Augusta were involved in their weekly mid-week prayer service. I was two miles away at The Hill Baptist Church where we were having prayer meeting and a missions program.

The newspaper article also noted that at the time of the crash Rabbi Klensin was speaking at Covenant Presbyterian Church. While the article doesn’t say, I suspect he was talking to them about Hanukkah.

I’m using the word “coincidence” purposely. But they are interesting coincidences.

All time is sacred time, but I find it interesting that this all happened during an annual time of special sacredness for Jews and during a weekly time of sacredness for Christians. And the rabbi was speaking at a Christian church.

Was there a “miracle” in all of this? I don’t know. But I do find some special significance in this excerpt from the Chronicle’s story:

Rabbi Klensin said he thinks it's possible the pilot was trying to make an emergency landing. From the air, the only spot not covered with homes and trees is the school parking lot just west of the temple.

"Maybe in the last seconds of life he was looking out for other people," Rabbi Klensin said. No one on Walton Way was hurt.


If so, he did a good job.

To think of others in the last moments of your life—or in any moments of your life—that is a blessing and a miracle.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

What Shall I Bring the Newborn King?

This morning NPR’s Marketplace Morning Report reported on a Christmas-themed commercial in Italy that has been pulled from the airwaves after a Catholic priest complained.

The ad, which you can view here (it’s in Italian but you’ll get the idea), depicts, in cartoon style, the Wise Men visiting the Holy Family. Three of them bear the traditional gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But there is a fourth Wise Man who comes bearing a case of Red Bull energy drink.

The priest who complained about the ad thought that it was blasphemous.

I don’t know if it was blasphemous. I would prefer the slightly milder term “tacky.” It is in bad taste to make light of the birth of Jesus in order to sell a product. I’m not so much offended by the content of the ad as I am by the use of the Nativity for commercial purposes.

On the other hand, I laughed at Monty Python’s Life of Brian and I suspect that a few people made quite a few bucks off of that effort.

And, lots of folks make lots of money marketing Christian items that are Christian-themed. Some of them are tacky; some are not. Of course, such a judgment is a matter of taste. (In a related matter and as a follow-up to yesterday’s post, I need to report that a friend let me know that you can in fact buy an inflatable Nativity for your yard. If you want to.)

Tackiness aside, while it lacks the symbolic significance of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, which were gifts fit for a king, I couldn’t help but wonder if Red Bull would have been such a bad gift, for Joseph and Mary if not for Jesus. As Marketplace reporter Megan Williams said, in introducing her report, “While an exhausted post-partum Mary might have appreciated a caffeine boost…”; we can indeed imagine that an energy drink might have been of benefit in such a circumstance. Appropriateness is contextual, after all.

Besides, what if the case of Red Bull was the best gift that the Wise Man could produce?

The Little Drummer Boy of the beloved Christmas song “had no gift to bring that was fit to give a king.” So what did he do? He offered the one thing and thus the best thing that he had: he played a song for the baby Jesus. “Then he smiled at me—pa rum pum pum pum.”

I think that Jesus gladly accepts the best gift that we can bring, even if someone else thinks it isn’t worth much.

What shall I give Him,
As small as I am?
If I were a shepherd,
I'd give Him a lamb.
If I were a wise man,
I'd do my part.
I know what I'll give Him,
I'll give Him my heart.

--Christina Rossetti

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The War on Santa Claus


Here in my part of the world, a good many people like to use those inflatable Christmas yard decorations. They might put out inflatable reindeer, inflatable snowmen, or inflatable Santa Clauses.

I have yet to see an inflatable nativity scene—thank the Lord!

In my recent travels I have noted a sad sight: deflated inflatable Santas. I know that any of the inflatable yard ornaments could lose their air, but it seems to me that every time I see a deflated figure it is Santa Claus. And I have seen a good many of them.

I fear that the inflatable Santas are under attack. Could it be that enemies of
Santa Claus are attacking his image with air rifles or some other weapons? I fear that it is so. I hope that it is not.

Santa Claus is under attack in more significant ways. Rear Admiral Steven K. Galson, the acting Surgeon General of the United States, recently said that Santa Claus should lose weight so as to provide a better role model for children. He told the Boston Herald, “It is really important that the people who kids look up to as role models are in good shape, eating well and getting exercise. It is absolutely critical.”

Such an attitude violates the spirit of one of the sacred texts of American Christmas celebrators:

He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself….


Then there is that scene in the classic television program Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in which Mrs. Claus is trying to get Santa to eat because, she says, nobody wants a skinny Santa.

Now, I’ll admit that there is no need for Santa to be grossly obese. After all, the old fellow has been around for a long time and we don’t want to lose him anytime soon. Let’s just don’t expect him to be skinny.

The next thing you know, somebody will try to make a movie about Santa using an actor as skinny as Billy Bob Thornton. Oh wait, that’s right—but it wasn’t called Bad Santa for nothing!

The attack on Santa doesn’t end with the assault on his waistline.

Some folks are also trying to correct what they regard as the political incorrectness of his signature laugh. It has been reported that some of Santa’s department store representatives in Australia are being encouraged not to say “Ho! Ho! Ho!” Why? Are you ready for this? Because that might be offensive to women.

Seriously, now, would any women really suddenly start taking a phrase that Santa has been using for decades as an offensive statement addressed to them? I can see where someone might if Santa uttered the phrase while he pointed and leered at her as she walked by. But in a Santa context in which Santa says “Ho! Ho! Ho!” in the ordinary Santa Claus way? Surely not. No women I know—and I admit that my circle is pretty much limited to strong-willed, self-assured, thick-skinned, not looking to be offended, I don’t have time for this kind of silliness women—would take it that way.

In the movie Elf, Santa's sleigh can't fly because the world is so low on Christmas spirit. That's the risk we run, my friends, if we don't put an end to this foolishness. We who love Christmas must insist that this war on Santa Claus be stopped and stopped now!

Let Santa be chubby!

Let Santa bellow his jolly “Ho! Ho! Ho!”

And by all means, let the inflatable Santas live!


Monday, December 3, 2007

In the Meantime: Be Ready

(A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent based on Romans 13:11-14 & Matthew 24:36-44)

What do we do in the meantime? The meantime is the time between. In this case, we are talking about the time between the First and Second Advents of Jesus Christ. We are dealing with three facts. First, Jesus came to Bethlehem’s manger all those years ago. Second, Jesus will come again. Third, we are alive right here and right now. This is our meantime. What will we do with it?

During this Advent season I will say to you that we should spend our time being ready, being at peace, being compassionate, and being amazed.

The question for today is this: are we ready for Jesus to come?

When push comes to shove, you just have to get ready. We all know what that is like at this time of year. If family or other company is coming over and the house needs to be cleaned and the food needs to be cooked, we do it. If it’s almost Christmas and there are still presents to be bought and gifts to be wrapped, we do it. Why do we do such things? We do them first because they need to be done. But we do such things second because they are important to us. When push comes to shove we do that which it is important to do.

Nothing is more important than being ready for Jesus to come. The issue for those of us who are Christians, though, is that he has already come to us in our lives. Because he has already come we are already in the process of getting ready for his Second Coming. The issue for those who are not Christians is that you have not yet let Christ come into your life. You need to take the first step in getting ready by opening the door of your heart and letting him come in.

We exist side-by-side, those of us to whom Christ has come and those of us to whom he has not come. Just this week someone helped me notice for the first time that those who have been getting ready—the one in the field who will be “taken” and the one working at the mill who will be “taken”—have a responsibility to the ones who are at this point destined not to be taken. Here is a place where discipleship and witness dance hand in hand. What we are becoming and what we are sharing go together.

Make no mistake about it, though—when Christ comes into our hearts and lives things begin to change and they keep on changing for as long as we live. It should come as naturally as breathing to us. As O. Hallesby pointed out,

The air which our body requires envelopes us on every hand. The air of itself seeks to enter our bodies and, for this reason, exerts pressure upon us. It is well known that it is more difficult to hold one’s breath than it is to breathe. We need but exercise our organs of respiration, and air will enter forthwith into our lungs and perform its life-giving function to the entire body.
The air which our souls need also envelopes all of us at all times and on all sides. God is round about us in Christ on every hand, with his many-sided and all-sufficient grace. All we need to do is to open our hearts.
[O. Hallesby, Prayer, cited in A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants, ed. Rueben P. Job and Norman Shawchuck (Nashville: Upper Room, 1983), p. 17]

Yes, it should come as naturally as breathing to us. Jesus Christ is in our lives; we are clothed in him; he is our atmosphere and our environment.

Holding our breath is harder than just breathing. Keeping Jesus out is harder than letting him in.

And yet we have to be reminded. Paul reminded us: “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light…” (Romans 13:11-12). Jesus Christ has already come to us. Jesus Christ will come again. But right here, right now, is the time for us to wake up and to live like people of the light and not people of the darkness. And we are ever to be moving forward and growing. As Martin Luther reminded us: “To stand still on God’s way means to go back; and to go forward means ever to begin anew.” [Martin Luther, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, trans. J. Theodore Mueller (Grand Rapids, Zondervan: 1954), p. 172]

We need to be reminded that we are not waiting to be caught up in what God is going to do; rather we are already caught up in what God is doing. As Emil Brunner put it,

Where faith in Christ looks at the future, it turns into hope. Yet this future is not remote—something that glimmers on the distant horizon of history. It is the future of the Lord, and this future is already in process of happening…..With every hour we approach it more closely; already it throws its light into the darkness of the present. Faith is indeed nothing but living in the light of that which is to come. [Emil Brunner, The Letter to the Romans (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1959, p. 113]

We are not just waiting for what God is going to do; we are already a part of what God is doing.

In the church of my childhood, at this time of year rehearsals for the annual Christmas play were in full swing. Parts were assigned, scripts were distributed, and rehearsals were undertaken. Those plays were at the same time awful and wonderful. They were awful in their amateurishness. But they were also wonderful in their amateurishness. Those were just normal folks up there acting for the sake of our entertainment—and for the sake of the good news of Jesus Christ. Always at the end of those plays a nativity scene got worked into the plot, usually as a dream sequence. But something very important was said in that, namely, that our story is somehow caught up in the Christmas story, that our story is somehow caught up in the story of what God has done, is doing, and will do through Jesus.

As we grow and live in Christ, living in the light and not the darkness, we bear witness to the light to those who are living in the darkness. How do we do that? There are all kinds of ways.

We bear witness by what we don’t do. We don’t live as those do who live in darkness. Now, this is not legalism. This is rather living in the grace of God that changes us always for the better.

We bear witness by what we say. We need to be careful how we speak. We need especially to be careful to speak up for Jesus at every opportunity.

We bear witness by how we serve. We bear witness to Christ for the sake of others as we give of ourselves in service.

So, in the meantime, let’s be getting ready. And let’s be showing others how to get ready.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

The BCS Mess

What a season!

On the last day of the season, both #1 Missouri and #2 West Virginia lost. But that's no great surprise, given the kind of season it's been.

When the BCS rankings come out later today and the BCS Championship game is determined, how will it play out?

It is a given that Ohio State, which was ranked #3 going into this weekend, will rise to #1. They are 11-1, won the Big Ten championship, and have had the privilege of sitting around for a few weeks while everyone ranked above them has continued playing and losing.

I think that the Big 10, the Pac-10, and the Big East need to go to a two-division setup with a conference championship game like the SEC, ACC, and Big 12. It seems unfair that teams are penalized for losing in conference championship games while teams in other conferences don't have that hurdle to jump. Of course, no one forced the other three conferences to go to a championship game.

Anyway, Ohio State will be #1. The question is, who will be #2 and play the Buckeyes for the BCS title?

Will it be Georgia? The Bulldogs were #4 in the BCS rankings going into this final week of the season. Will they rise to #2? As a completely biased Georgia fan, I certainly hope so. I think that the Dawgs would beat Ohio State. But then I think that any of the teams that could conceivably make the title game will likely beat Ohio State.

Still, those commentators who question whether Georgia should be there have a point and this is it: Georgia did not win their conference championship. In fact, the Dawgs did not even play in the championship game. Technically, they are co-champions with Tennessee of the SEC East, but, because they lost to UT, the Vols went to the championship game. Other teams have played in the BCS Championship who did not win their conference, but a case can be made that it should not happen. I doubt that Georgia will be #2 today.

I suspect that LSU will jump the Bulldogs. The Tigers lost two games this year, both in triple overtime. They are the SEC champions. It would be hard to argue with the Bayou Bengals playing Ohio State.

Other possibilities are ACC champions Virginia Tech, Big 12 champs Oklahoma, and PAC-10 winners USC, but it looks like getting to #2 is too big a jump for all of them.

So, I say look for an Ohio State vs. LSU BCS Championship Game with the Tigers winning by at least two touchdowns.

So where will my Bulldogs go? They will probably play in the Sugar Bowl against the University of Hawaii. But I hope they go to the Rose Bowl to play Southern Cal. That would probably be the most entertaining bowl game of them all.